Peggy Orenstein urges us to “think about pink”

Last month, I posted a video of Infomania’s Erin Gibson taking on the pinkification of America that occurs every year in the name of breast cancer awareness. In Saturday’s New York Times, author Peggy Orenstein echoes Gibson’s concerns, particularly those about who breast cancer awareness is marketed to younger women.

Orenstein, whose forthcoming book Cinderella Ate My Daughter assesses that damage that “girlie girl” culture can do to children, is herself a breast cancer survivor. She traces the evolution of talking about breast cancer, from hushed tones and euphemisms to the groundbreaking memoirs of NBC correspondent Betty Rollin and public stories of diagnosis, treatment and survival from women like Shirley Temple and Betty Ford.

Today, breast cancer awareness looks very different. It looks like pink NFL gear and “Save Second Base” t-shirts and contests at bars in which photos of women’s (presumably cancer-free) breasts are enlarged and voted on by patrons. Orenstein notes that the goal of educating young women and girls about prevention is a noble one – but that a lot of the organizations selling “I Heart Boobies”-style merchandise aren’t all that specific about how much of their money goes toward that goal, or how they plan to achieve it.

Orenstein acknowledges that many women who are diagnosed with breast cancer experience the disease as “an assault on our femininity.” But today, she writes, the language we use to talk about (and raise money for) breast cancer positions it as an assault on breasts, and breasts alone. Why are we talking about “saving the tatas?” Shouldn’t we be talking about saving women’s lives?

Mostly, Orenstein says, sexy breast cancer is like “fetch.” We need to stop trying to make sexy breast cancer happen. It’s not going to happen, because breast cancer is not sexy:

I hate to be a buzz kill, but breast cancer is just not sexy. It’s not ennobling. It’s not a feminine rite of passage. And, though it pains me to say it, it’s also not very much fun. I get that the irreverence is meant to combat crisis fatigue, the complacency brought on by the annual onslaught of pink, yet it similarly risks turning people cynical. By making consumers feel good without actually doing anything meaningful, it discourages understanding, undermining the search for better detection, safer treatments, causes and cures for a disease that still afflicts 250,000 women annually (and speaking of figures, the number who die has remained unchanged — hovering around 40,000 — for more than a decade).

As I’ve said in the past, raising money to fund a cure for breast cancer is a worthy, wonderful cause. But there’s no denying that breast cancer is marketed differently because it involves breasts. No one’s walking around wearing sexy t-shirts that have handprints on the stomach and the slogan “Save the Pancreases.”


New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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